The Skeleton Haunts A House is A Family Skeleton Mystery by Leigh Perry.
It’s worth reading. Want to know why? I’ll do my best to explain below.
And what’s more, I’ll try to do so with as few spoilers as possible!
Jonathan Wojcik is a sort of celebrity figure among those who really like monsters. On his site The Insidious Bogleech he routinely “reviews” monsters from multiple media.
A curious idea, yes, but I challenge you to find me a review of a film, book, or album that’s even half as insightful and heartfelt as any one of his monster reviews.
During the 2014 Halloween season – a season which, for Jonathan, lasts at least five months – he explored the wonderful world of skeleton figurines. In this article, which is one of the funniest things you’ll read today, he succinctly answered a question I didn’t even know I needed answering:
“Why are skeletons so appealing?”
Because they are. I’ve always liked skeletons. For as long as I can remember, skeletons have made me smile. But why?
There’s one inside me and – yep – it’s covered in blood, alright. The mere suggestion of a skeleton should be enough to remind me of my inevitable death and decay. But it doesn’t. Instead, I find myself reacting to pictures of skeletons like I’ve seen others react to pictures of pugs.
Then I read Jonathan’s article, which opened with this observation:
…skeletons are almost only ever funny. It’s not even the recent internet phenomenon some may have taken it for. No, skulls and skeletons have been funny for a while. They’re thrust at us with so much innocent sincerity, so frequently, that it’s simply no longer possible to take them seriously as a chilling glimpse into our own mortality. Any time a skeleton is intended to be terrifying, you can bet it’s probably going to be hilarious, effectively making skeletons the natural elemental opposite of clowns. That is why when a clown and a skeleton come into contact, they mutually annihilate one another on a molecular level.
“Innocent sincerity” is the key here. When it comes to horror, there’s so much I simply cannot tolerate: Torture, cruelty, and gleefully pornographic explorations of “man’s inhumanity to man”. But I also know what I like – atmosphere, mystery, suspense…and topping the list is, I realise, this concept of “innocent sincerity”.
Take ghosts, for example. Classic ghosts. Sheet ghosts. The sort of ghost society that’s hinted at in the old Caspar The Friendly Ghost cartoons: It’s very strongly implied that ghosts exist to scare people. They love doing it! It’s their job! That’s why they look so delighted when they succeed in their scaring.
Skeletons don’t necessarily exist to scare people, but like successful ghosts, they do always look delighted. Combine that with the sort of “drunk C3PO” demeanour that I cannot help but attach to every skeleton I encounter, and is it any wonder that they’ve always just done it for me?
So when Mr. Bogleech shared Leigh Perry’s Family Skeleton Mystery books on his Tumblr, I couldn’t stop laughing for quite a while. Then one thing led to another, and eventually my girlfriend bought me The Skeleton Haunts A House for my birthday.
I started reading it almost immediately. I didn’t quite know what to expect but… well, how could this book possibly live up to its title, its concept, its cover?
And yet, this is how it starts:
Most people wear Halloween costumes in order to look scarier, but my best friend Sid picked his to look less scary.
Sid The Skeleton is a fascinating character. He doesn’t eat, but he likes to sit with “his family” at dinner times. He doesn’t sleep, so he spends all night trawling Facebook and playing video games. He has a mobile phone, which he keeps in his skull cavity when he’s not using it. He can control every bone in his body individually, and he’s seemingly held together by his force of personality alone. So when scared or worried, he starts to fall apart.
The Skeleton Haunts A House is Leigh Perry’s third Family Skeleton Mystery. As much as I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’d like to read the first two. I understand that one of them explores Sid’s origins. But when Sid’s simply taken for granted, the whole thing is a lot funnier, and a lot more endearing.
There’s one bit where Sid’s skull’s been taken out for a walk. When they get home, he wants to be reattached to his body. So right on cue, his headless body walks down the stairs, groping around it for its skull.
Nobody in the room so much as glances at this strange spectacle. This sort of thing happens every day. Who in their right mind would want to explore the origin story of this happy scenario?
But Perry spends a lot of time exploring the “family” side of her Family Skeleton Adventure. Unfortunately, for a family that lives with an animated skeleton, the Thackerys are really quite boring.
The problem is that they’re too nice. Aside from a slightly strained relationship between two sisters, everyone gets along. There’s no tension, no conflict, and the bare minimum of bickering. Spending this much time in their company quickly becomes cloying. In-jokes and character quirks are repeated so often that they lose all their charm.
Meanwhile Georgia, our narrator, explains her admin duties as an adjunct professor in almost microscopic detail. On two separate occasions she mentions how boring she finds essays about overcoming racial prejudice, which is as strange as it’s suspect.
Not even Sid, with his dance parties and wisecracks, is capable of carrying these sections. I’m afraid I skim-read much of the first half of the book.
But then we got to the meat – the mystery – and while it would be a push to say I became enthralled, I certainly became interested enough to persevere. And it’s worth persevering. The pay-off is unexpected and satisfying (maybe – I don’t read many mystery novels), and the conclusion is surprisingly touching. I mean, I wish I lived in a house that were haunted by my best friend.
It’s a murder mystery that deals with cyber bullying, academic pressure, and haunted houses – that is, American “haunts”, the type where people jump out and scream at you. Having only recently read Margee Kerr’s Scream, taking in Perry’s comparatively schlocky exploration of American haunt culture was more than a little jarring.
Kerr is a sociologist who runs a haunt of her own. Her book is an excellent study of fear itself. Why do we go out of our way to scare ourselves? But underpinning this is a scathing condemnation of the seedier side of American haunt culture – the right wing, white male dominated side that delights in dehumanising while profiting from exploitative imagery of suffering women.
Scarehouse, Kerr’s haunt, is different. Having studied fear, she’s developed an intense experience which, having pushed people to their limits, then goes on to build them back up again. People apparently leave with a feeling of euphoric transcendence.
So it’s easy to suppose what Kerr would make of McHades Hall – the haunt featured in The Skeleton Haunts a House. This is a haunt, after all, which leaves its visitors reeling, in which the scare staff relish the idea of soiled undergarments and sleepless nights. The haunt is full of exploitative scenes not just of suffering scantily clad women, but also of dated and dangerous depictions of the mentally ill.
Anyway! This is an endearing book about an endearing skeleton that features a mildly diverting murder mystery. Recommendable? Only if you can’t resist the idea of characters earnestly uttering sentences like this:
There’s nothing we can do except keep our fingers crossed that nobody realizes he’s a real skeleton.
And that’s the thing. No matter how cliched or cloying things get, every so often you’re reminded that this is a murder mystery about a talking skeleton.
That odd thing’s happened: I’ve read the word “skeleton” so many times that the word now looks weird.